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Weeding Out Hatred and Darkness

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Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
-- Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

When hate and greed seem to dominate our world, as with yesterday's ugly and tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, it's natural to feel despair and grief, along with anger and hopelessness. What can we do, each of us, to combat what seems like an overwhelming descent into the darkness of violence and hatred? 

How can we heal this polarized nation, stem the tide of hate splitting what used to be "us" into tribes fearful of "them"? For that matter, how can we heal this earth, its climate changing so fast that whole ecosystems are breaking down, and we are losing species, in some cases before we even know them? 

I don't think there is any one answer to those questions, any one "right" way to proceed. It's up to each of us, working in our own way, to stand up for what we believe in.

To speak up and speak out. To act up, reach out, to write or march or preach or protest. To dance, sing, paint; to craft legislation, investigate crimes, argue points in legislatures, hearings, or courts. To fight fires, heal the wounded, pick up the pieces, comfort those who are scared or sick. To raise great kids, tend our elders and parents and partners. To do whatever we are called to do with love and compassion.

For all. Everyone. All lives, human and also those myriad of other lives with whom we share this extraordinary blue planet. 

Like these bees feeding on a thistle flower. 

The quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the top of the post guides my response: I aim to spread love and light in my every day actions. Because I believe that what we do speaks at least as loudly as what we say. So I treat others with kindness and respect; I extend my love to those who are difficult to love; I stand up for those who are being mistreated, speak for those who have no voice; I act with the love and light that have the power to drive out darkness and hatred.

I'm no saint. I get cranky and tired and impatient and angry. But I try to notice how I am feeling and choose to not take out my moods on others. I choose love. And kindness, a smile rather than a curse or a kick. I would rather be the one who opens a door than slams it shut in someone else's face. 

I'm not a push-over. If you think because I approach the world with a smile and kindness you can take advantage of me, think again. I stand up for myself and for others. Like the velvet-ant in the photo above (actually not an ant at all but a flightless female wasp), I have a stinger, and I will use it!

What I won't be is intentionally mean or hateful or hurtful or divisive. As I say in my morning prayer,

Make me strong. Not to overcome my brothers and sisters; to live in the Light and spread it to all I touch.

I believe that goodness has more staying power than hatred and violence. I believe that our everyday actions set a tone that others respond to. I believe in King's words: light can drive away the metaphorical darkness of racism and violence and greed; love can drive out hatred. 

Which is why I spent this past week in Yellowstone National Park, continuing my ecological restoration project, AKA digging out invasive weeds.

"Wait," you say, "I thought you were extending light and love to all. Now you are calling some lives 'weeds?' How is that consistent with living with compassion and love?" 

To me, "living in the Light" means standing up to bullies, and if need be, removing them to restore health to the community. To an ecologist, a weed is an introduced species who hasn't evolved healthy relationships, a species who doesn't contribute to the community and doesn't play well with others. A weed is a bully who, like the plants with the lovely purple flowers in the photo below, poisons other plants in order to gain a competitive advantage for itself. 

Spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), a native of Eastern Europe which exudes poisons through its roots to kill the plants around it. 

I spent the week digging spotted knapweed by hand from areas around Mammoth Hot Springs. I dug up nine 30-gallon trash bags full of mature knapweed plants (some with tap roots a foot long!), about 200 plants and 15-20 pounds per bag. That's a lot of bullies.

There's a lot more knapweed to remove, but when I go back and look at an area that I and my fellow weed-warrior volunteers have worked on, I am heartened to see the native plants recovering, to see seedlings of bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoregneria spicata), oval-leafed buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium), and basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata) moving in to re-weave a healthy community.

As I stoop or kneel to dig and yank and bag weeds, I speak to both the weeds and the surrounding native plants, explaining what I am doing, telling them that I do this work with love and respect for their existence. That my calling is to restore this earth and celebrate its extraordinary diversity of lives. I don't know whether my words reach them, but I know that they can sense my mood. And that matters. 

I also speak to park visitors passing by, letting them know why I am crouched near the ground, dusty and sweaty, wielding a seven-inch-long plant knife. Often they thank me for the work I'm doing, which is nice, but not my point. I want them to know that we humans can be a positive force in the world, a healing force, that we can use our power for love and light. That we can each make a difference.

I want to leave this world, or at least my small corner of it, in better shape than I found it. That is my way of pushing back the darkness and hatred. 

Hundreds-of-years-old big sagebrush shrubs, the old-growth "canopy" of the lower elevations of Yellowstone, and what I work to protect. 

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We Are All Tool Girls

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It started out innocently enough: On Friday afternoon, Jeff Durham, my contractor, was trimming the outside of the new windows in the kitchen bay, which is right next to the front entry. (The photo above shows the old windows, the brick enclosure in front of them on the left is the "planter" box.) I looked at the brick enclosure, and said, "You'll have to climb over that stupid thing." "Maybe it's time to take it out," he said a grin, knowing I can't resist a challenge.

That planter box has been on my to-demolish list since I first looked at the house. It's not original, it doesn't fit the house design, and worse yet in my book, it's unusable, wasted space. Because (1) it's too far under the deep eaves which keep my house cool in summer to get enough sun to grow anything, (2) if you filled it with soil it would rot the original cedar-shake and redwood siding that abuts it, and (3) it's too deep to fill anyway. 

"I'll take the first swing," I said. I had made good progress on one of two essays I'm writing for the 2019 Weather Calendar published by Accord, and I was feeling cocky. 

Jeff said mildly that each course of brick was two layers deep, so a sledge hammer might not be the demo tool of choice if I wanted to salvage the bricks. (He's worked with me for seven months now, so he knows my "recycle and reuse" ethic.) He went out to his workshop trailer and got his Bosch rotating hammer, something I had seen guys use in the past (Richard had one) but never laid hands on myself.

My new favorite tool: an 8-amp rotary hammer with chipping bit.

Jeff plugged in and proceeded to chip out part of the first course of bricks while I watched. He set the hammer down and looked at me. "Maybe you want to do it yourself," he said, with that grin again. (He does know me!)

I did. I got my work gloves, and while Jeff finished bending and cutting the powder-coat metal trim for the two windows outside the planter box, I whaled away at the top three courses of brick on the box so it would be easier for him to step over to do the trim on the next window. It took me a little while to get the feel of the rotating hammer, which is like a mini-jackhammer in terms of impact and kickback. 

Getting started on planter-box demo...

By the time he was beginning on that last kitchen window, stepping over the now-lower brick box, I had gotten my technique for separating bricks from mortar down, and had a good rhythm going. We worked companionably until about six-thirty, and then as he packed up his tools for the night, Jeff said, 

"I can leave you the rotary hammer so you can finish up tomorrow." 

I straightened my sweaty back and rotated my shoulders, aching from bracing the 8-pound hammer and its vibrating impact. I looked at what I had done, including the pile of mortar chunks and un-salvageable brick (some bricks are cracked, some don't come free of the mortar). "I think I need your dump trailer too."

He nodded and said he'd pick up the workshop trailer in the morning and leave the dump trailer when he did. 

Progress... (Notice those beautiful new kitchen windows with their custom white metal trim.)  

Which is how I came to spend most of my Saturday muscling a noisy rotary hammer, and sweating as I hauled bucket-loads of mortar chunks to Jeff's dump trailer, parked in my driveway. I honestly didn't think I'd be able to finish removing all the brick--12 courses high on one side, 14 on the other, double-thick, and 40 inches long by 50 inches wide equals a lot of brick and mortar to remove. 

And that hammer got heavier and heavier over the course of the day, as I got sweatier and more gray with mortar dust. But I kept whaling away, and I swear I felt my skinny biceps growing with each course of brick removed!

I can't shoot a photo of me working with a rotary hammer, because keeping it balanced and aimed is a two-handed operation. But my friend Connie Moody stopped by late in the afternoon and shot some photos. So there I am, sweaty and filthy Tool Girl. 

You'll have to imagine the noise, like a small jackhammer banging away... Thanks, Connie!

Brief commercial: Connie is half of the duo of Jay and Connie Moody, who manage the Thomas the Apostle Retreat Center outside town. If you are looking for a peaceful retreat place with gorgeous long views of the nearby mountains, check out the center's website. TAC boasts comfy and moderately priced rooms, a labyrinth to walk, Jay's beautiful Habitat-Hero-award gardens, and Connie's delicious meals. You don't have to be Christian to stay there... 

I finished chipping out the last course of brick late yesterday afternoon, and then schlepped the remainder of the pile of mortar chunks plus the broken bricks to Jeff's dump trailer, one bucket at a time, my muscles groaning with each load. I swept up the worst of the mortar dust, and hosed down the newly exposed walls and porch post. (I'll remove the mortar stains later, with a small grinder equipped with a brush.)

Then I just stood there with a huge smile on my face, admiring my new, more open front entry. I can already imagine the built-in bench that will tuck into the corner once walled off by the brick planter, with a small wall-mounted water feature above it bringing the soothing sound of trickling water, which I will be able to hear inside the kitchen too... 

I was sweaty, filthy, and weary, with every muscle aching, but I felt great. As I soaked in the tub later, I thought about what is so satisfying about this Tool-Girl work. Part of it is getting to do some of the actual hands-on work: I am project manager on this house renovation. I design (with Jeff's input), search out materials (ditto). But I rarely get to do the actual work, because I'm not the expert and I have a fulltime job already. 

Another part is knowing that Jeff will lend me his power tools, that he trusts me to be careful and capable, even if it's my first time with a particular tool. Reminding myself that I can do this hard work makes me feel powerful, in a positive way, and capable, and strong. 

That's a lot for a 60-year-old "girl" who grew up small and slight. And who didn't grow up or go through most of her adult life with any kind of tool-girl tendency or competence. I am Tool Girl, hear me roar... 

Every "girl" should know how to use tools, and learn the basics of building and un-building, of creating and repairing what we and others build. Whatever we do in our lives, knowing how to work with our hands and muscles makes us strong and capable, more grounded.

The truth is, we are all of us, whatever our age or size or background capable of being Tool Girl. We just don't believe it, we don't know it in our bones until we do the work ourselves, even just once. Then our bodies remember that strength and power and pride in ourselves, and carry it into the rest of our lives. That's a good thing for everyone.

We are all Tool Girl, hear us roar...

The dozens and dozens of bricks I chipped out are now edging the gravel paths and patios under construction in my yard. (Gravel to come later.) in this new incarnation, they're both useful and beautiful. 

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Renovation: Four Guys, a Forklift, and One Big Window

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Thursday, the hottest day this past week, was replace-the-dining-room windows day. That's the last in this batch of new windows for my wonderful but long-neglected house.  

We didn't pick the hottest day of the week on purpose. Thursday just happened to be when the stars aligned for my wonderful contractor, Jeff Durham, to have three helpers, plus the big forklift needed to move the 500-pound window-unit in place. Through my backyard. 

(The photo at the top of the post is pre-window-removal. You can see why I wanted to replace those particular windows: the right-hand one, a 60-year-old double-paned window, is so cloudy from having leaked decades ago that it's like seeing through a scratched lens. The left-hand window, while clearer, has an inoperable awning window with a rotted frame.)

The windows were built as a single unit, which complicates removal. As does the mid-century modern drywall "return," a rounded metal curve that conceals the drywall edge next to the window, without the need for additional trim. I love that clean, simple look. And its hard to duplicate if damaged.

Jeff, who I am convinced can do anything related to house construction or destruction, carefully Sawzalled (Yes, that is a verb!) between the old window unit and that metal bullnose to preserve it. And then he and Bo, a former construction guy turned personal trainer at the local gym who has been helping Jeff with my window-replacement, cut the awning windows out, and carefully removed the upper picture windows. 

Each picture window itself weighed over 100 pounds, so just hauling them to the dump trailer was no small task. Now I had a big rectangular hole in my wall, and the real fun began.

I can see clearly now... But it's a bit open to weather and flies!

The new windows--same style, also built as a unit--were in my garage. Getting that window unit out of the garage and around to the back of the house involved all four guys and a four-wheel drive forklift. 

First the guys muscled that window-unit onto the forklift basket. 

And then off Jeff drove, with Matt and his brother Jake balancing the window unit! Down the street, around the corner, up the alley...

And through the backyard (if you wondered why I haven't gotten started landscaping the back yard, the need to drive heavy equipment across it for our various renovation projects is why). 

Over the spruce stump, under the house eaves... 

And into the big hole in the wall. It fits!

New dining room windows in place. 

The new windows are so clear, and so much more efficient than the old ones (on a hot day, I can feel the heat through the old panes) that now I want to replace the bank of three windows in the living room area. Which is a big gulp! for my renovation budget. 

That new dining room window unit cost almost $2,000 just for the windows, not including renting the forklift and the guys' time, plus exterior trim and painting. I figure the living-room unit will cost around $3,000 and need the same forklift but probably at least one more guy. But oh, my! are the new windows beautiful and a huge improvement... 

So I've asked Julie at the Cody branch of Wyoming Windows & Cabinets for a quote. And while we're at it, there's the single unit in the breakfast room, and five awing windows I'd like to replace too: one in my office, one in the powder room off the kitchen, and three downstairs. 

Renovating this long-neglected house is neither simple, nor cheap. But solving the challenges is so satisfying. And it is such a joy to see and feel a once-beautiful place come back to life. Restoring this house restores me too--it exercises muscles, mind, and creativity, and fills my soul. I feel very, very fortunate to be able to do this work. 

Richard Cabe (1950-2011), sculptor, economist, father, husband, brother, friend, and the love of my life

I only wish the guy in the photo above could see it. He would so enjoy having his hands and creative brain on this project! (He's hand-hammering a steel bowl there, for a firepit he sculpted from a ton of granite boulder. Thanks to Harry Hanson, half of the ridiculously talented duo of Sterling & Steel for teaching Richard how to work steel.)

I've had Richard even more on my mind than usual because today would be his 67th birthday.

Happy Birthday, my love! Thank you for introducing me to design and building--I learned so much from watching you. You'd be surprised, and I hope pleased too, if you could see me now, Tool Girl, happily engaged in house renovation. 

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Family and Windshield Time

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I didn't blog last weekend because I was in western Washington with my family. It's so rare that the whole Tweit clan can gather (only Molly was missing) that I wanted to soak up every moment. Even my middle niece, Sienna, and her husband and kids were there from Germany, where Matt is on detail with the Army Corps of Engineers. I haven't seen them in three years! 

I left on Friday morning and intended to be leisurely about the 14-hour drive, stopping in Coeur D'Alene, in Idaho's Panhandle, for the night. Only when I got to Coeur D'Alene, it was only five o'clock and the temperature was 97 degrees. Not ideal weather for sleeping in my truck. I pressed on to Spokane (98 degrees) and continued west across eastern Washington in heat that just didn't let up. So I just kept driving. 

By the time bug-splattered Red and I crossed the Columbia River upstream of Yakima it was nine o'clock, 95 degrees, and the sun was close to setting. I calculated through a gritty brain (I had been driving for 12 hours by then) that I had about two and a half hours to go if the traffic in the Seattle-Tacoma corridor wasn't too horrible. 

I texted my brother and Lucy, his wife, that I was aiming for a late arrival. "So if you see Red in the driveway tomorrow morning, don't wake me up!"

They texted back that they couldn't wait to see me. "But drive carefully!"

I made it to their house on Tumwater Hill at a few minutes after eleven. They were still up, so I got to sleep inside in a real bed, always a plus. 

The next day was a mellow morning, and then we all--Bill, Lucy, their youngest, Alice, and I--headed out to Ocean Shores for the weekend, where most of the rest of the clan joined us. (Dad and my eldest niece's husband, Duane, couldn't join us there.) We feasted on fresh Dungeness crab that night (I was too busy cracking legs and eating the succulent meat to shoot a photo), and ate at a seafood shack that Heather and Duane had discovered on an earlier trip. (Great choice, Heath!)

Some of the clan around the big table at the seafood shack (I couldn't fit everyone in the photo!). Left to right, my youngest niece Alice, who is channeling her uncle Richard and studying economics; my brother Bill; my sister-in-law Lucy; Sienna and Matt; Colin, middle son of Heather (who is sitting next to me and not in the photo); and Fiona, Sienna and Matt's eldest. (Not in the photo: Porter, Sienna and Matt's youngest; Liam, Heather's youngest; and Heather.)

In between meals there was beach-time (Porter and Colin even braved the cold waves, agile and fearless as seals), explore-the-nearby-playground time, put-together-ridiculously-hard-puzzle time (my great-niece, Fiona is the artistic one and a puzzle champ), and just hang-out time. 

On the Fourth, half of us went to a lunchtime picnic at Panorama Dad's retirement village, and then we all gathered at Heather and Duane's gorgeous new house on Lake Tapps, outside Sumner, for a barbecue and fireworks. (Where I had such a great time I also forgot to shoot any photos.)

At the Panorama picnic: Sienna on the left, Matt next to her with Fiona in front, Bill with Porter in front of him, Lucy peeking over Dad's shoulder, and Dad showing off the walker he is using at 88 to help straighten up his spine (he's pretty stooped, but he'll be 89 in two weeks, so he's not doing badly). 

By the time I set out for the long drive home the next morning, I was feeling full of family and love, and ready for some quiet windshield time.

I'm an INFJ-A if you know the Myers-Briggs system of personality types. (If you don't, you might find the test and descriptions of personality types at Sixteen Personalities illuminating.) The 'I' stands for introvert. I'm not an extreme introvert, but I do need a lot of quiet thinking and digesting time. 

So instead of retracing the 14-hour route on Interstate 90 I took on the way to Washington, I took a longer route home. I dropped south to Portland, Oregon, on I-5, and then east through the Columbia River Gorge on I-84, over the Blue Mountains, and south and east through Boise, across southern Idaho, and then north along the back side of the Teton Range, and home through "The Park," as we refer to Yellowstone here where the nation's first national park is our backyard. 

Mt. Hood in the distance over the Columbia River as I headed south to I-84 and the Gorge. 

That's a drive of about 1,300 miles, instead of the just-under a thousand miles on the westward leg. Not a distance I could do in a day. 

Going the longer route gave me more windshield time for thinking, and also meant I got to travel a loop, rather than out and back. I like seeing the West's open landscapes, the more variety the better. 

It took me two full days of driving, and I spent the hottest night I've camped in Red's topper in a Walmart parking lot in Mountain View, Idaho, where the temperature at sunset was 97 degrees F, down from 100. (I was just too tired to drive on, and once the air cooled down, I slept pretty well.)

Still, it was a lovely time. I'm a reader of landscapes, parsing geology and landform, asking myself why these particular plants grow here but not there, or these plants are absent, pondering the human pattern of occupation, both historic and present day. I observe and think about what my observations mean, what the landscape and its patterns have to say to us. There is a lot to look at between Tumwater and Cody, and thinking about all I saw kept me pretty occupied. 

Driving into the Columbia River Gorge on the west end... 

And driving out on the east end. What's different about these two ends of the Gorge? And what explains that difference? Those are the kinds of questions I ask myself in reading landscapes. (Leave a comment at the bottom of the post if you guess the answer!)

I also spent time on my daily gratitudes, which include being grateful for these mostly wild and open landscapes and the many ways they inspire me. And being grateful for the time with my family, as well as for being able to come home to the place that is the home of my heart: Northwest Wyoming.

I thought about Richard, because he was always up for a road trip, and because he would have loved this family gathering (we talked about him over the weekend--my family misses him the way I do, like an ache in a limb you no longer have). And because part of my route home was on our Big Trip, the 29-year-late honeymoon drive we took two months before he died. 

Richard greets the redwood forest on The Big Trip (September, 2011)

And I thought about the question that preoccupies me this year more than other because I will turn 61 this fall, the age Richard was when he died: Who am I in this post-Richard life? 

It's a question that's been on my mind ever since November 27th, 2011, when I looked out at the slender silver sliver of new moon cupping Venus in the western sky and he was no longer there to share that sight. 

For the first three years after he died, I focused on digging myself out of the financial hole that brain cancer and losing him left me in. With the help of family and friends (special thanks to Andrew Cabe, Grand Pound, and Maggie and Tony Niemann), I finished and sold Terraphilia, the big house he built for us but never quite got around to finishing, and his historic studio building, which he began renovating but didn't finish either. (There was always an interesting sculpture challenge to solve first...)

Then I was focused getting my little house built, and on returning to freelance writing, along with writing the first half-dozen drafts of Bless the Birds, the memoir about learning to love the end of life that I still haven't finished. (I has taken a lot longer to get the story right than I imagined.)

And now, I'm home in Cody and realizing again how much of who I became over those almost 29 years together was because I was half of "us," "Richard 'n Susan," a pair so close we often finished each other's sentences, a pair mated for life. 

Richard 'n Susan, in the landscape he loved so much, and I loved because it was a home we could agree on, the Upper Arkansas River Valley in southern Colorado.

Without the other half of that pair, who am I? 

That is what I am working on finding out.

I know that I am most at home here in the sagebrush country on the east edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That plants are my "people." That my mission in life is restoring and celebrating this earth and its vibrant web of lives, plant by plant and word by word. And that love is perhaps my greatest strength. (Earning a living clearly is not! Still haven't figured that one out.)

That's a lot, don't you think? 

But it's not everything. I'm still discovering parts of me I had forgotten for decades. This figuring out who I am as Woman Alone, the "just me" me, is a fascinating and sometimes disconcerting quest. 

I am very grateful to be home to do it. And to have such a warm and welcoming home to return to. Seeing this house come back to life is so heart-filling. Maybe that's what I'm doing too: Coming back to life. As just me. Whoever she is. 

My bedroom with new windows (same style as the old, just tight, thermally efficient, and the glass is so clear!), a new floor, and new paint. It's the first room in the house to be finished... 

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Renovation: New Windows, New Clarity

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All day I've had Jimmy Cliff's reggae rhythms in my head singing the first line of "Bright Sunshiny Day," "I can see clearly now...." (It's actually a Johnny Nash song; the Jimmy Cliff version is better-known though.)

Why is "I can see clearly now" my current earworm? Because yesterday was start-replacing-windows day at my house.

And now I can--see clearly out of at least some of my windows. It's not just visual clarity: the new windows are a big jump up in terms of sound-reduction, and insulation as well. 

I hadn't realized quite how corroded my 60-year-old, neglected windows had become until my contractor, Jeff Durham, and his helper, Bo took the first set out.

The guest bedroom with original windows... 

And with no windows at all... A much clearer, if perhaps too open view!

Getting the Mid-Century Modern windows out without injuring the original wood valance and metal bullnose trim--both integral parts of the uncluttered look and horizontal lines that characterize Mid-Century Modern design--involved a good bit of finesse. Which Jeff and Bo accomplished smoothly, if noisily with their Sawzalls, Dremel tools, and cordless drivers. 

If removal was a bit tricky; installing the new windows was... a bear. 

The new units include double-paned windows, with solid wood framing, and a clad exterior. The ones they were working with yesterday each weigh around 200 pounds. 

New window units storied in my garage (good thing I have a two-car garage so we have space for construction supplies!)

Prep-work involved cleaning up the old openings (I did the easy part, running the shop vac), trimming away obstructions, and leveling and building out the sills to fit the new units. 

Prepping the opening. That siding is the original western red cedar, painted to keep it from drying out in our arid climate. The color is not the original--it was once an eye-popping turquoise!

And Jeff and Bo grunted each new unit into place, marked any further adjustments, hoisted it out (with much rippling of muscles), made adjustments, and then eased the heavy unit in place again. 

One unit installed, one to go...

Once Jeff and Bo got done with the guest bedroom, they moved to my fabulous retro kitchen, and went through the whole process for the main unit of windows in that bay. 

Carefully removing the old windows without breaking the interior bullnose trim...

Opening prepped for the new window unit...

And easing in the heavy-as-heck new unit.

Jeff and Bo knew what they were doing, which made the process look easy, but it definitely wasn't. Still, they got the first three window units in. 

And oh! They are so beautiful.

Once the mullions are painted, and the outsides of each opening are wrapped with new trim, the new units will fit right in. And I will look at the windows I can't afford to replace yet, including the huge bank of three over-and-under windows in the living room, and dream about replacing those too. 

After Jeff finishes renovating two more bathrooms, builds me a back deck, and puts in a new roof and working gutters... 

Which means it'll be a while. Maybe years. That's okay. I have the worst of the old ones replaced. And I have a bathtub now in my beautiful and almost-finished en-suite bathroom. 

The soaking tub in the bathroom we fitted in one corner of my bedroom (my bedroom will get new windows sometime this week). I have a whole suite to myself!

Did I mention that I love my house? My new windows remind me of how life-changing clarity can be.

I am clear about this: I am grateful to be alive, and to have the gift of this refuge, this house that fills my battered heart with love, in the landscape that nurtures my spirit. 

May every one of you find such a home, a place that gives you strength and clarity to pursue your life's mission. And may we each work at making this world a safer, more peaceful, and healthier place for us all--every species, every being. Blessings!

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Weeding as a Radical Act

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I'm coming to the end of my sojourn in Yellowstone National Park, my "vacation" spent weeding invasive plants, those species that imperil the health of natural communities, and impoverish us all. 

Here's what I accomplished in the past ten days:

  • Worked 35.25 hours
  • Hiked 47.5 miles
  • Dug approximately 3,050 houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale) plants (plus musk thistles, Carduus nutans, and a few other invasive weeds)
  • Hauled 25 trash bags weighing around 290 pounds of adult houndstongue plants loaded with prickly seeds to the trash dumpsters for safe disposal. 

Two large houndstongue plants I dug up this morning, including their extensive roots. For scale, my plant knife is a foot long including the handle!

Beyond the data, I got to spend time living in Yellowstone. (The photo at the top of the post is the view from my "office" one morning after a rain. You have to imagine the resiny fragrance of rain-washed sagebrush leaves, and the musky smell of a small herd of mom and calf elk downslope.)

I got to watch elk calves so new they were still wobbling on their long legs. I learned the herd-mama "Wah-ooo-ee!" call, which means "Get over here now!" and the calves "Wah! Wah!" cry, which could mean either "I'm hungry!" or "Where are you?"

Mom elk calling her twin calves, right in the Mammoth Campground (I shot the photo from my truck, no telephoto lens needed).

I also saw pronghorn fawns still wet with after-birth, two glossy black bear cubs, plus a mom grizzly bear with twin cubs, her pale-tipped fur a straw-gold nimbus against the sun. 

Spring is baby season in Yellowstone, from baby Richardson's ground squirrels, the lunch-meat of every larger predator out there, to baby bears. And baby birds, too. The baby wrens at the restroom nearest my site at the Mammoth Campground were ridiculously loud for such tiny 'uns!

I worked in every kind of weather spring in the Rockies can deliver: snow, rain, and sizzling heat. 

Weeding in wet snow is cold and nasty, but the white landscapes surely are beautiful!

I usually worked alone, but I also got to spend a morning weeding with my boss, Park Botanist Heidi Anderson, and her crew. Their main focus is mapping and restoring wetlands, so catching up with them was a bonus. 

I also had two mornings with longtime Yellowstone "weed warrior" Dan Smith, who is in his tenth summer of volunteering. Dan came down from Lake, a scenic but long drive, to help me dig out two particularly daunting patches of houndstongue, each involving hundreds of plants. (Thanks, Dan!)

A twenty-pound bag of houndstongue full of seeds, part of our morning's weeding haul... 

My days in the park are simple and retreat-like (albeit physically grueling). I wake with the light at five-thirty or quarter to six, and greet the day in my sleeping bag as the robins, western tanagers, chipping sparrows, and other birds weave the dawn chorus. 

Once up and dressed, I set my backpacking stove on my truck tailgate to boil water for instant oatmeal. As I inhale the hot meal, I think up my daily haiku. After cleaning up from breakfast, I drive up uphill to the Mammoth Store, where the cell reception is good enough to use my phone as a wifi hot spot, so I can share the poem and photo, my gift to all. 

I fill my to-go cup with cocoa in the store, and then head for wherever I am working. If I'm hiking, I shoulder my day pack with weed bags, first-aid kit, bear spray, water, and extra layers in case of rain or snow. 

Look closely at the dead tree: The golden-brown spot on the left-hand side is a Coopers Hawk with wings spread wide to dry after a drenching rain. I've never seen a Coopers Hawk do that before!

And then I dig houndstongue until I wear out, usually around noon. While I work, I scan my surroundings for wildflowers and wildlife, like the sow grizzly bear with twin cubs I saw one day from a distance. (No, I didn't think to take photos. I was too busy making sure I wasn't in their way!) 

After I get back to the truck, I dispose of my day's haul of trash bags full of weeds, take off my gloves, clean my plant knife, and head back to camp for lunch. 

The rest of the day is my time. Some days I drive downhill to Gardiner, Montana, the nearest town, to charge up my laptop and cell phone, and use real internet. While in town, I also go to the grocery store. Or take a shower. Or do laundry. 

Some days I want more solitude, so I ramble in search of new wildflowers, and then sit and identify them. Or perch on a rock in the sun and read a book. Or write a letter... 

One of my favorites: Penstemon cyaneus, blue penstemon, an endemic plant found only in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

Yellow bells, Fritillaria pudica, another favorite. 

After eating my simple dinner, I curl up in my truck-topper cocoon: a super-comfy, four-inch-thick Thermarest mattress, sleeping bag, and pillows (yes, more than one). Cozy, I read or write in my journal until sunset.

After which I say my gratitudes for the day, brush my teeth, and sleep soundly, snug until the light wakes me before dawn to hear the bird chorus. This morning's chorus began with the distant howling of wolves, a ululant grace. 

Dawn from my campsite. 

Weeding to nurture biodiversity in a place I have loved since childhood is deeply satisfying. Even if my inner economist reckons the dollar cost high--as a freelance writer, I live perilously close to the financial bone, unlike those who have salaries to offset volunteer time.

The thing is, I cannot afford to not do this work. Weeding for biodiversity is my gift to life. The light in my soul as I lug another heavy bag of houndstongue down the trail is life's gift to me. This work is a positive statement in a world that feels far too negative. This is my mission, the why of why I am alive:

I nurture and celebrate biodiversity, plant by plant, word by word. That our planet may thrive, and we--all the gloriously diverse kinds of us--along with it.

Nurturing biodiversity is a spiritual practice, and a radical act. A plant knife dug into the earth to resist global climate change. A sweaty step toward healing all beings--humans, bears, sagebrush, yellow bells and lupines and bumblebees, and the earth we hold dear. 

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Fieldwork: Weeding for Biodiversity

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I ended last week's blog post with a draft of a mission statement for my work. I've been trying to explain to myself for years what unites the varied passions that propel me through life.

I'm a writer and plant ecologist, a person happiest outdoors, whether just in my yard or in wilder places. (Though my yard is pretty wild at times!) I'm rooted in the inland West where sagebrush perfumes the air after spring rains, sandhill cranes bugle as they migrate in to nest in summer, and winter days are edged with snow. 

I'm passionate about nature, both the study of earth's web of life and reconnecting humans to our place in the planet. Specifically, I'm drawn to plants, especially those native to this continent, for their ability to evoke place and also their myriad of relationships that weave that web of life.

I have spent decades restoring nature, often on my own and without pay, particularly nature in the places where we live, with a special interest in gritty industrial landscapes and urban creeks and rivers. 

I garden with an eye to growing habitat for pollinators and songbirds, as well as providing food, scents and colors, tranquility, and beauty for humans. 

I write as a way to understand and explore the meaning in life, both my own life, and the larger cycle of capital 'L' life, existence. To show us why we are here, and to reveal the wonder and incredible variety of the world we live in, including the myriad of other life forms with whom we share this planet. 


The thread is clear: I'm passionate about nurturing and celebrating life in all its glorious diversity, with a particular emphasis on plants and words.

Which is why I'm spending my annual  "vacation" in Yellowstone National Park, digging out invasive weeds to help restore these iconic landscapes to health. So that this island of wild biodiversity may continue to thrive and inspire us all. 

Houndstongue, AKA Cynoglossum officianale, a plant imported from Asia and one that truly does not play well on this continent.

Wait! You say. How does labeling plants as invasive weeds and then killing them square with nurturing biodiversity? 

Like everything else in life, it's complicated. The phrase "restore the integrity of nature" is key to what I'm doing in Yellowstone. Some species don't play well when they're transplanted to new places, where they lack the interrelationships with other species that give them a positive role in the community.  

They may "go rogue" and actually endanger the health of the whole community. Think salt cedar or tamarisk in the inland West, crowding out the diverse ribbons of species along the region's rivers and streams, and poisoning the soil as they shed their salty leaves. 

The plant I'm focusing on, houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale), a native of Eurasia, protects itself from grazers by manufacturing compounds that act as liver disrupters in wild ungulates like deer, elk, and moose. If for instance, an elk calf munched enough of houndstongue's large, felty leaves (which are at their most attractive just as the baby elk are learning how to graze), it might well die of liver failure in a few weeks or months.  

Houndstongue may also do something more subtle and potentially more disruptive to Yellowstone's ecosystems: it may co-opt the attention of native bumblebees by growing tall stalks of flowers that bloom for a long time and are attractive to native bumblebees.

Bumblebees and other native bees are critical to the survival of Yellowstone's native wildflowers: they pollinate their flowers and ensure the next generation, seeds. If say, a plant from somewhere else takes over whole areas and keeps bees from pollinating the native flowers, they decrease and the invader increases, which fragments the integrity of the ecosystem and ends up reducing biodiversity. 

So here I am in Yellowstone, digging up trash bags full of one invasive, non-native species to nurture biodiversity in the larger native community. (I hiked five miles yesterday, and dug up about 50 pounds of houndstongue. Hard, rewarding work!)

I'm working for the health of the lupine (the native wildflower being pollinated by the bumblebee in the photo above), the sagebrush, the elk, and the whole interwoven community that forms these iconic landscapes.

And I'm having a wonderful time, camping in Red, and listening to elk and western tanagers, admiring wildflowers and hot springs, and taking in time in a place where I began this work of celebrating and nurturing biodiversity decades ago.  

Of course, I'm still playing with that mission statement. (Writing really is 95 percent revision!) Here's another version:

I nurture and celebrate biodiversity, plant by plant, word by word. I work to restore the integrity of nature and to honor all forms of life. Because diversity is key to health--of cultures, neighborhoods, and ecosystems. That our planet may thrive, and we along with it.

The Gardner River below Mammoth, roaring with spring snowmelt.

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Writing for Biodiversity

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I spent the weekend in Gillette, Wyoming, a nearly five-hour drive east of Cody, over the Bighorn Mountains and out on the spring-green northern plains (plains photo above).


Gillette is the heart of Wyoming's Powder River Basin with its gargantuan coal strip-mines. Coal didn't call me to northeastern Wyoming; writing did. Gillette happened to be the site of this year's Wyoming Writers conference.


I hadn't intended to go this year--I'm too newly returned home and I'm feeling pretty overwhelmed with all I have to do in writing, book reviewing, and house/yard renovation. Not to mention that I'm leaving next Friday for ten days in Yellowstone and my annual "vacation" as a weed eradication volunteer. 



But my friend Patricia Frolander, former poet laureate of Wyoming, a powerful writing voice, a rancher and mom who is newly widowed, asked if I was coming and offered to share her hotel room. Which seemed like an opportunity I'd regret missing. 


So Friday mid-morning I headed east, stopping near the McCullough Peaks just outside town to ogle deep blue Nuttall's delphiniums and starry white daisies blooming in the sagebrush country.



The snowy ramparts of Carter Mountain on the distant skyline; cobalt-blue clumps of Delphinium nuttallianum bloom in the foreground. 


An hour and some later, I wound my way up Tensleep Canyon into the Bighorn Mountains, passed to the south of Cloud Peak Wilderness Area with its rounded peaks looking like snowy piles of clouds. Coming down the east side of the range, I had to stop again to admire the sunshine-gold swaths of arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) coloring the mountainsides, along with purple spires of silky lupine.  



By the time I got to Gillette, I just had time to unload my stuff in the hotel room, and then head to the conference center to register.


After which the weekend was a whirlwind immersion in writing talks and workshops, informal talks with other writers, and thinking and breathing and even sleeping all things writing. (I even dreamed in typewriter letters last night!)


I'm still processing all I experienced and learned, but two things stand out: First, what a warm and supportive community Wyoming Writers is. Everyone I met was welcoming, and the workshop time was insightful and substantive, without degenerating into the kind of unhealthy competitiveness that marks some conferences. 


Second, keynote speaker Nina McConighley, who grew up in Casper and is East Indian and Irish, talked about "growing up brown" and "the wrong kind of Indian" in Wyoming. In her workshops and her speech, she challenged us to go beyond the myths and stereotypes and look at The West and Wyoming through new eyes.


"Tell the unusual stories," she said. (If you haven't read her PEN-award-winning short story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, do. It's funny, heart-wrenching, and deeply perceptive.)


I thought about McConighley's words all the way home, driving west across the Northern Plains toward the shining peaks of the Bighorns, winding up and down over the range itself, and then zipping across the undulating surface of the Bighorn Basin toward the rugged ridges of the Absarokas, the mountains that call me home. 


As writers, we have the ability to touch people's hearts and open their minds, to help enlarge their perspective on the world. In this time of polarized and angry political discourse and yesterday, yet another attack where ordinary people were killed simply because they represent a group, culture, or nation the bombers hate, writing the unusual stories can help us learn to value diversity rather than fear it.



Diversity like this meadow in the Bighorn Mountains, a mosaic pattered by dozens of species of wildflowers (including that gorgeous magenta Dodecatheon or shooting star), grasses, sedges, and shrubs, and this afternoon at least, abuzz with native bees and flies of varying sizes and echoing with the songs of half a dozen kinds of birds.


If we write in a way that reveals the unusual, the stories of lives who do not conform to the norm, we can help "normalize" differences and calm our readers' fears. If our work gives voice to the sometimes-hidden or overlooked diversity of our communities and cultures, we can help our readers understand or at least have sympathy for those whose lives and beliefs, whose skin color and choices are radically different from our own.


Writing the unusual, we can help break down barriers of hate and fear. 


As a scientist, a plant-nerd, and an older woman, the perspective I bring to this conversation is a voice speaking on behalf of biodiversity. (One thing nature teaches us is that diversity is a healthy attribute for communities and ecosystems.)



The "unusual stories" I tell are those of our fellow species with whom we share the earth, those remarkable more-than-human lives who together weave this planet into numinous and shimmering life. Like the mariposa lily (Calochortus gunnisoni) in the photo above, offering its cup with nectar to pollinating insects. 


I've been searching for my mission statement, a succinct way to describe my parallel passions in writing and ecological restoration. Perhaps it is simply this:


I work for biodiversity. To restore earth and humanity, word by word, plant by plant. 


I write for the mariposa lilies blooming in ephemeral profusion before the moisture that fueled their unusually abundant spring emergence vanishes and the clay soil dries hard as brick. For the bumblebees and metallic green sweat bees who were pollinating those saucer-shaped blossoms today, the kingbird sitting on a nearby fence waiting to catch some of those pollinators to feed its growing nestlings, and the prairie dogs that savor the sun-fed sugars the mariposa lilies store in their underground bulbs. For the black-footed ferrets we saved from extinction to feed on the prairie dogs, and the big sagebrush, whose sweet turpentine scent perfumed my drive home. For the whole interrelated stew of existence, in all its glorious unusualness. 


I work for biodiversity, to celebrate all life. Not just the lives like mine, not just the lives I prefer. All life. That our planet may thrive, and we along with it. 

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The Balm of Bobcats and Wildflowers

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In times when the human world seems to have gone crazy, I head outside for the balm of nature nearby. I always return inspired and energized, humbled, and remembering (again) that life, the capital L kind, the web of interacting species which make this planet a vibrant sphere, is an astonishingly creative and tenacious community.

Tuesday, a baby Bobcat lured me outside. Not the feline kind with four paws and a deadly pounce, the diesel kind with tracks and a bucket. (That's a selfie of me grinning as I operate the machine.)

Knowing I had yard-healing to do, my contractor had put us on the waiting list at the rental center for the MT55, a walk-behind mini-bulldozer. On Tuesday morning, Jeff got the call that the machine was ours for the afternoon. I asked if I could play. 

"Sure," he said. He showed me the throttle (a lever with a range between a turtle symbol and a jackrabbit symbol!), forward and reverse, how to steer the tracks, and how to use the bucket.

And then he set me loose. So there I was in my sandals, skirt, and nice sweater (I know, I know, but I was dressed for a meeting and I was very careful), moving and dumping fill, smoothing it with the bottom of the bucket, and running the baby dozer back and forth to tamp things down.

And grinning like a maniac, because using that baby Bobcat to mend the utility-trench scar in my backyard surely is fun. (Who knew?) 

When Jeff came back, I had to go to my meeting. By the time I returned, he was at work scalping turf from the front yard for my lawn replacement project, carving out the paths and patio I had outlined with fluorescent green spray paint. 

I grabbed a shovel and tidied edges, cut roots, and cleaned up stray bits of turf. 

By the end of the evening, the two paths and the patio were ready for gravel, and the robin mama who insisted on building a nest over the side door to the garage had figured out that the newly scraped soil made perfect worm-foraging territory.

(She was completely unafraid of the noisy mini-dozer.)

Today I led the second wildflower walk I've offered in a week. A snowy winter and wet spring have made this one of the best bloom years in decades for the high desert, and I want share this ephemeral miracle--its beauty and its balm--with as many others as I can.

Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis) dotted with sulphur yellow western wallflower (Erysium sp.) and prairie Junegrass

Including you. Here's a quick tour of what's blooming in my "nearby wild":

Bessey's locoweed (Oxytropis besseyi)

Fuzzytongue penstemon (Penstemon erianthus)--you've got to love that common name, which alludes to the furry stamen that leads bumblebees inside the flower

a fleabane (Erigeron sp.) I haven't identified yet

An annual lupine (Lupinus sp) that's only about three inches tall!

Scarlet guara or lizardtail (Guara coccinea)

And the adult bald eagle we unintentionally disturbed from her perch in a cottonwood tree on the canyon rim. Look for the white spot of bald eagle tail in front of the cliff mid-photo.

The wonder of nature--spring wildflowers, bald eagles, and all--is in just that flourishing of diverse forms of life, growing and blooming, hunting and eating, mating and dying, each in their own unique way. Spending time outside reminds us that even at our worst (and global climate change certainly falls in that column), we are not everything.

Life continues despite us. Not unchanged, but determined and creative, impelled by the need to thrive. In every corner and pocket and place.  

That determined flourishing as exemplified by the myriad kinds of wildflowers blooming among the sagebrush this spring gives me great hope. Hope in the active sense, the sense of encouragement to redouble my work of spreading love in the world, of healing this battered planet and my species in the doing.  

For me, that's the balm of bobcats and wildflowers, bald eagles and the miracle we call life. 

scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea), also called cowboy's delight

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Restoring a Yard

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Progress on my house and backyard is stalled right now. The backyard is still partly torn up from trenching for my new underground electric service because we're waiting for the City to re-connect my raw water line (Cody has two distinct sets of water delivery pipes, treated for in the house and raw or untreated for irrigation water).


(Backyard destruction: The photo at the top of the post is my contractor, Jeff Durham, smiling from the trench he just dug, and his son, Allen, on the left holding the sawzall for cutting tree roots. In the background are Sam and Dustin, hooking up the new electric service and meter box to my house.) 


In the house, we're waiting for my plumber to rough in the fixtures for my en-suite bathroom. 


While I'm practicing patience--never my best talent--I'm getting started on the front yard, which is basically on the lawn-and-shade-tree landscaping plan.


There's one skinny flower border along the fence by the garage, and an oblong bed in the middle of the other side of the lawn with a teenage spruce tree beginning to shade it. Both are over-run by lawn grasses, with numerous volunteer Russian-olive sprouts plus a few Canada thistle sprouts too, just to liven things up. 



Lots o' lawn--boring! But what are those green lines? Read on... 


As you can imagine, I'm planning a complete yard makeover. I envision colorful landscaping that uses less water, provides more habitat for pollinators and songbirds, and is less welcoming to ambling deer and munching cottontail rabbits. No easy task, but I'm beginning to see a plan. 


Inspired by two small, triangular, rock-edged beds (also over-run by lawn) on either side of the drive where it meets the front sidewalk, I decided to plant a rock garden along the front edge of the yard between one of the new access paths (outlined in green above) and the sidewalk along the street. 


My neighbor Jane Dominick donated two wheelbarrow loads of local rock from her yard, and my friend Connie Holsinger, visionary co-founder of the Habitat Hero project, gave me a generous gift certificate to High Country Gardens.



I ordered more than two dozen native plants plus a few non-native lavender (which will serve as deer and rabbit-deterrent), piled the rock near the rock-garden-to-be, and thought for a couple of weeks. 


Yesterday afternoon, I got started laying out plants, and cutting through dead turf to plant them. I worked for a couple of hours, and then, before I had entirely worn myself out, I cleaned and stowed my tools, and went for my regular Sunday run. 



The bricks mark the edge of a new path; the rock garden extends from the path to the sidewalk, to the existing triangular bed--also newly planted, and to the driveway.


After work this evening, I took some time to admire what I had done, and to start placing rocks. I'm going to need a lot more of them, and more plants, but with plants and gardening, I can be patient.


Renovating this yard is a long project, but oh, how rewarding it will be!  



The future rock garden viewed from the other direction. The new plants are in dark circles of removed turf.


In the meantime, I am inspired by the sagebrush desert just outside town where I run. This year's spring green-up is the best in decades, colored by the prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) and dotted by an ever-changing show of wildflowers. 



The Shoshone River and its canyon from my running route. 


I am taking notes and photos, and planning to collect seed for my rock garden. Who could resist attempting to grow these charming and beautiful native mat-plants? Not I!



Hooker's sandwort (Areneria hookeri) with its starry flowers, all of two or three inches tall



Stemless four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis), a minature blast of spring sunshine



Waxleaf penstemon (Penstemon nitidus), not a mat-plant, but oh, that blue!, growing in front of Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. Wyomingensis).

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